Leila de Lima, the Philippine Justice Secretary called for a thorough investigation of the hostage crisis in Manila [AFP]
Three coffins used to bring back some of the eight Hong Kong tourists killed in last week’s Philippine hostage crisis had been mislabelled, a Hong Kong government spokesman said.
The mix-up was discovered on Thursday after the family of one victim went to a Hong Kong mortuary to identify their dead relative only to find the coffin contained the body of another victim of last week’s hijacking.
A senior Hong Kong official and weeping relatives had laid wreaths on the mislabelled coffins at a sombre airport ceremony in Hong Kong last week.
“Three of the coffins were wrongly labelled,” a government spokesman said. “When the bodies were at the mortuary in Hong Kong, the error was discovered.”
The blunder was made at a Manila funeral parlour before the bodies were flown to Hong Kong, the spokesman said, most likely when the victims were transferred from plain coffins to more elaborate caskets.
Gwendolyn Pang, secretary-general of the Philippine National Red Cross, said the victims’ bodies were correctly labelled before they left for the funeral parlour, but could not verify if the coffins had been properly tagged.
“They were identified in the hospitals by the travel agency and the family members,” Pang said.
“The family members claimed (the bodies) in the hospitals and then they were sent out for post-mortem care.”
The hostage ordeal on August 23 began when sacked policeman Rolando Mendoza hijacked a bus with 22 Hong Kong tourists and three Filipinos on board in the heart of Manila.
The day-long drama was played out on television screens around the world and ended in a botched rescue attempt riddled with police errors.
The deaths of the Hong Kong tourists triggered public outrage over the mishandling of the crisis and investigations into whether the hostages were killed by Mendoza or by police weapons.
Philippines police briefly detained two members of a Hong Kong forensics team on Thursday at the
Manila airport after several bullet shells connected to the hostage investigation were found in their possession, officials said.
The two were trying to board a flight back home and did not possess clearance from the Department of Justice (DOJ) for transporting the slugs and shells back to Hong Kong, Jose Salazar, a DOJ official, said.
“The obligation is on them to get that clearance, because the agreement is nothing should be taken from the crime labs unless it is cleared from the DOJ,” Salazar said.
He added it was merely a misunderstanding, and the Hong Kong police agreed to seek clearance in the future.
“This is the first incident, and next time, we agreed that this won’t happen anymore. Before they bring out any kind of item related to the investigation, they will coordinate with us,” Salazar told reporters.
The bullet shells were fired from Mendoza’s 22-calibre and 45-calibre guns as part of the ballistic investigation.
The chaotic final moments of the hostage siege will be re-enacted as part of the investigation into the tragedy.
Among those who will help reconstruct the event is the Filipino driver of the seized bus who dramatically escaped from the vehicle’s window moments before the assault by police commandos.
“When we question the bus driver, we (plan to) do that ocular inspection for purposes of re-enactment,” Leila de Lima, the Philippine Justice Secretary told reporters.
De Lima said the re-enactment would take place on Monday, when authorities also intended to wrap up the investigation before submitting a detailed report to president Benigno Aquino.
The Philippine government has admitted to making a number of errors in its handling of the crisis, which has chilled diplomatic ties with Hong Kong and damaged the southeast Asian nation’s tourism industry.
Within two days after the tragic hijacking, Philippine resorts received around 800 cancelled bookings, mostly from Hong Kong and China. Many foreigners cited security concerns.